Friday, February 20, 2015

Rhetoric: "Blaming the Victim"

When someone in politics offers an explanation for why something bad happened, they are often accused of "blaming the victim".

Is this a fair accusation? Is there ever a case where someone "brought it on themselves" when something bad happens to them?

One of the issues with this kind of rhetoric is the distinction between predicting and justifying. For instance, if I leave my front door unlocked, that increases the likelihood that someone is going to steal something from me. If I leave my door unlocked and someone steals something from my house, you could say that I "brought it on myself" by failing to lock the door.

But that's not to say I deserved to be a victim of theft in the sense that stealing from me was justified. Even if I leave my house unlocked, it's still wrong to steal from me. It's just that, knowing that there are people out there who will do the wrong thing and steal from an unlocked house, I failed to take a sensible precaution to stop those people. I should expect that, when I don't lock my house up, I'm more likely to be a victim of wrongful behavior. You could say I left myself vulnerable to mistreatment.

The "unlocked house" case is a clear case, in my view, of where it would be acceptable to blame the victim (me) for mistreatment. This isn't to absolve the thief: they're still wrong to have taken things that didn't belong to them. But I'm also at fault in the sense that I could easily have taken steps to thwart the thief.

How many other cases are there where it's acceptable to "blame the victim"? Consider some other instances (the victim is italicized):

  • Country A has a foreign policy that upsets people in country B, and people in country B respond with acts of violence or terrorism against country A;
  • You privately had nude pictures taken of yourself, and those pictures were leaked to the public;
  • person enters an unfamiliar neighborhood late at night and is robbed;
  • A person is alone and drunk in public late at night and is robbed or physically or sexually assaulted;
  • woman is dressed in a revealing outfit and is sexually harassed or assaulted;
  • US citizen visiting a hostile country such as North Korea or Iran is arrested on trumped-up allegations of being a "spy";
  • Person A verbally insults something that person B cares about greatly -- e.g., their family or religion -- and person B responds by beating up person A.

Which of these are cases where the victim could justly be said to have "brought mistreatment on themselves" (again, not saying that it was OK for them to be mistreated, but that they behaved in a way that left them vulnerable to being mistreated)?

"You know, what he's trying to do is show people he's strong on gun rights. Years ago he came out to say that he could understand why you would want to limit assault rifles in inner cities like the one he grew up in Detroit. And people freaked out and they said, that's not a policy that a Republican contender can go with. So he's trying really hard to show these people that he has something to say. And while the rest of the party largely says that every 2.6 weeks we have a mass shooting, that “stuff happens”, this is something that Carson can say without offending sort of the gun lobby and pro-gun Republicans. By saying, look, you should be fighting back. It sounds sort of brave, even if it's largely victim blaming."
-- Jane Timm of MSNBC, October 7, 2015. Timm was commenting on remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson about the Umpqua Community College shooting. On, October 6, 2015, Carson said he "would not just stand there and let him shoot me … I would say, 'Hey guys, everybody attack him'".

Comment: Timm is accusing Carson of saying the victims at Umpqua "brought it on themselves". While it might be difficult to get people to rush an armed gunman, isn't it true that it would have resulted in fewer lives lost? Is it "blaming the victim" to say that?

Women who walk around drunk and provocatively dressed should expect to be sexually assaulted, Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer of the Pretenders, has suggested.

The former chart topper claimed in a Sunday newspaper interview that scantily clad women were likely to “entice a rapist” and that it is their “fault” if they are attacked.

She discloses in a new memoir how she was abducted and sexually assaulted by a motorcycle gang in Ohio in the early 1970s – but concludes it was “all my doing” because of the way she was dressed and the fact that she was under the influence of drugs.

She also claimed that pop stars who call themselves feminists but use their sex appeal to sell records were effectively just “prostitutes”.

Charities said her remarks highlighted how victims of sexual assault wrongly blame themselves for their ordeals.

Her comments came in an interview with The Sunday Times, which published extracts from her autobiography entitled “Reckless”.

The book details an incident when she was 21 when she was picked up by a motorcycle gang who promised to take her to a party but instead took her to an empty house and sexually assaulted her.

But she said: “If I'm walking around in my underwear and I'm drunk? Who else's fault can it be? – Er, the guy who attacks you?

“Oh, come on! That's just silly.

“If I'm walking around and I'm very modestly dressed and I'm keeping to myself and someone attacks me, then I'd say that's his fault.

“But if I'm being very lairy and putting it about and being provocative, then you are enticing someone who's already unhinged — don't do that.”

She added: “You know, if you don't want to entice a rapist, don't wear high heels so you can't run from him. If you're wearing something that says 'Come and ---- me', you'd better be good on your feet… I don't think I'm saying anything controversial am I?"

She went on to argue that many women who describe themselves as feminists were anything but in practice.

Asked whom she meant, she said: “Women who sell what their product is by using sex – that's prostitution.

“A pop star who's walking around, parading themselves as a porn star and saying they're feminists.

“They're prostitutes.

“I'm not making a value judgment on prostitutes, but just say what you are.”
-- Entertainer Chrissie Hynde, as related in an August 30, 2015, story by John Bingham in The Telegraph.

Comment: "Prostitutes" is sexual rhetoric, though Hynde leaves open as to whether or not it should be taken as derisive. She is saying that the victim is to blame in many cases of rape.

"We're afraid of the police of what they can do and the power that we think that they wield as far as if something happens to me from a police officer, will it be covered up? Will there be justice for me, whatever? With the cops, we don't live in these neighborhoods, we just know what we see on television or what other people have told us. And we're just as frightened as these people, you know, but we have guns. And when you deal with human nature, human nature, not just this is an officer who's dealing with things professionally, he's still a human being. And when that fear kicks in, you never know what can happen. I just made an analogy the other day about how someone can tap you on the shoulder, scare the mess out of you and your first reaction is to turn and you might smack them. Imagine if you have a gun in your hand? It's the same thing. Now, With this thing that happened in Ferguson just now with the two officers, sad, very sad. I hate to say that that FBI report kind of played into this and these things shouldn't be happening, but you reap what you sow in a sense. If that FBI report would have never came out and the scandal or whatever and how they're basically giving people -- paying the city by giving people tickets and things like that. That is incredibly insane but we knew this already, this is common knowledge in the ghetto. When they come in the hood -- I mean, guys used to sit out and drink beer in public, stuff like that, never a problem at times. But when they are trying to make quotas everybody sticks it in their pocket."
-- Rapper Method Man, posted March 13, 2015. His remarks concerned protests on March 13, 2015, against the Ferguson, MO, police department (which has been cited for racial discrimination by the federal government), protests in which two police officers were shot.

Comment: With the phrase, "you reap what you sow", Method Man seems to be explaining that someone (though it's not clear who) "brought it on themselves". Is he referring to the officers who were shot, or law enforcement in general, or someone or something else?

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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